Picking the right course: A Q&A guide

It can be hard to make the right college choice - should you go with your heart’s desire or pick a course with good career prospects?


Does that degree in Latin leap out at you? Can you resist the lure of Fine Arts? Or should you be calculating and choose a course that will give you the best chance of a job after graduation?

“We never recommend students to choose a course they don’t really have any interest in,” says Marie Bourke of Forfas, which advises on future skills needs. “If you’re going to spend four years studying, it should be something you really like doing, or else there’s an increased risk of dropping out of college. That said, it is a good idea to have an eye to good career prospects.”

What, then, offers good career prospects?

Wily students have long known that some courses have better employment prospects than others. Graduates with a language – particularly business graduates – have a competitive edge in the jobs market. Ireland’s pharmaceutical industry shows no sign of contracting any time soon. And the shortage of electronic engineering graduates looks set to continue past 2018.

Where are the jobs in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)?

Science, technology, engineering and mathematical disciplines underpin a wide range of future job opportunities, according to the Forfas Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN). The demand for software developers and designers, IT project managers, IT support users, IT security experts, and IT testing and troubleshooting, is expected to remain high beyond 2018. There is currently a demand for the business, ICT, and creative skill set required in social networking, animation and multimedia production. In the manufacturing sector, the demand for precision engineering skills for tool design and polymer technician (both to technician level) and process engineering skills (professional level) have a good chance of being in demand up to 2020 and beyond.

Ronan Harris, Vice President of Large Customer Sales for Google, says computer studies will help equip graduates with valuable skills to conduct complex analytics, to compile statistics, and to interpret data intelligently. “These critical thinking skills will be in great demand in the years ahead. Computer Science is demanded not just by technology companies but by all companies whose success in the digital age increasingly relies on technological innovation in every department, including marketing, operations, finance and research.”

The Life Sciences sector continues to see growth in Ireland and seems to be on a sustainable base. Scientists, engineers and technical staff have good employment prospects in this industry. There is a strong demand for engineering skills in the energy and renewable energy sector.

What about humanities, business, and social science?

Arts, humanities, business and social science graduates offer good career prospects in finance, business services, legal services, communications, tourism and culture, education, and social services, according to the EGFSN. In international financial services, accountants with regulatory skills and business analysts with mathematical skills such as actuarial science, data analysis, and quantitative finance are highly sought. Marketing and sales skills are in demand. Supply chain management and logistics consistently suffers from skills shortages.

Graduates with a foreign language competency can skip the queue. Multilingual graduates are particularly needed in the areas of IT operations; finance and accounting technicians; finance account management; marketing, sales, accounts and business development; financial administration jobs; and stock control and transport (logistics).

Is it just about the course?

“When you’re filling out the form, whether for higher or further education, do choose something that will interest you, but also look to see if you can do a work placement as part of your study,” advises Marie Bourke. “If a student’s chosen course does not offer one, I’d advise them to try and find one themselves during their time in college.”

Bourke also advises students to hold on to a foreign language beyond the Leaving Cert. “Even if students don’t take a language or language module at third level, try to use the language through Erasmus, or work overseas in a placement during the course of their studies. Ireland is export oriented and it will be a huge benefit for a student, regardless of their discipline.”

Why should you trust the so-called experts?

The history of future predictions shows that experts often get it wrong. Most experts didn’t see the enormous global financial storm that hit in 2008 and, back in 1911, there was a wide consensus that there would be no more major wars.

The Expert Group on Future Skills Needs, however, has reasonably good form, and takes a long-term view. Their 2005 report was accurate, pointing out that although there were skills shortages in the construction sector, the level of activity in residential development would contract in the medium-term. The report also correctly predicted a future shortage of electronic and electric engineering.

Forfas works closely with the Industrial Development Agency (IDA) which focuses on foreign direct investment , and Enterprise Ireland which works with domestic companies to develop export markets. The organisation also looks at job vacancies each year and changes in global business, from environmental and energy concerns to the emergence of new markets.

Panel: What points for which course?

Science, engineering and technology: It’s hard to believe that, just five years ago, students could breeze into science courses with a little over 300 points. So much has changed. This year, points for science at UCD from 500 to 505, while Trinity College’s science course stayed at 510. At all other universities, CAO points rose. Points for many engineering courses were also up in 2013 at many institutions, with rises at UCD, DCU, NUI Galway, the University of Limerick, and UCC.

Arts: As science soars, arts declines. Last year, points for the UCD Arts course – still the most popular Level 8 degree course in the State – fell by 15 points to 340, a new low. Points were down at NUI Maynooth, UL, and WIT. Although they stayed steady at UCC and NUI Galway, points have been falling for a number of years.

Business: After a slight decline when the recession hit, points for business courses have been on the up for the past two years. UCD’s Commerce course rose 10 points to 475, while Business Economic and Social Studies (BESS) at Trinity stayed steady at 495. Business courses with a language are proving particularly popular: all DCU’s Global Business courses (with a language) jumped significantly last year, while all NUI Galway’s business and language courses rose by 30 points or more.

Agriculture and food science: Ireland’s food export business has been widely heralded as the saviour of the Irish economy, so it was no surprise to see points rising in 2013. Food science at UCC jumped from 405 to 440 points, while Food Science also rose at UL.

Medicine and health sciences: Students hoping for a fall in points for medicine shouldn’t hold their breath. This is a perennial high-points course, and points rose slightly last year. However, health science courses, which include dentistry, physiotherapy, optometry, and clinical speech and language, all saw slight declines last year.

Teaching: Still a relatively high points course, but media focus on pay and conditions of teachers may have reduced demand somewhat, as points fell slightly for primary teaching courses at Marino Institute, St Patrick’s Drumcondra, Mary Immaculate, and St Angela’s Sligo in 2013. Primary teaching at Froebel bucked the trend, with a 30 point increase to 495, in a year which saw the teacher training college move to the NUI Maynooth university campus – a first for teacher training in Ireland.

Law: Demand for law courses fell with the end of the economic boom. A marginal five point rise in many law courses last year is attributed to the effect of bonus points in the system, rather than increased demand from students. Points likely to stay roughly the same this year.

Journalism and digital media: Journalism is a challenging industry at the moment, with uncertainty over the future of newspapers. Nonetheless, points rose significantly in 2013 on the traditional journalism courses, jumping by 25 to 435 at DCU and from 400 to 405 at DIT. But demand among employers for digital media graduates shows no sign of abating: this may explain the jump from 380 to 410 points on UL’s Journalism and New Media course.

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